Why We Choose the Wrong Career: Part 2

married a blind date

Most career decisions are rushed and overly romanticized. On a typical day in my practice I’ll meet an 18-year-old who conveys with almost unshakable confidence that he’s going to be a brilliant doctor, but has never talked to one and doesn’t really know what they do. The next day I’ll meet a 33-year-old surgeon that is miserable because she fell into medicine; she hates the competitive nature of the doctors she works with and is highly annoyed by the whole health care system. For the life of her, she can’t figure out why things went so wrong. She remembers the story that her teenage self made up; it made her laugh, and then cry, “I married a blind date.” 

Much of the socially learned assumptions that influence our career decisions come from vague generalities and hunches. The environment and culture we grow up in shapes our career aspirations without us being fully aware of it. For instance, the number of kids enrolling into criminology programs exploded over the last decade with the sensational TV show “CSI”, but jobs are few and far between and an education in criminology is rated one of the 10 most worthless degrees. Even so, kids are still flocking into these programs. How is that our younger self is so “confident” that we’ll actually like the reality of our dreamy career forecasts?

We trust shortcut “rules of thumb” to choose our career paths because they “feel true” and give us a sense of certainty.

Another common example is that many of the brightest young people are bent on getting into a top college for fear of missing the boat to a successful life. Again, they aren’t mindfully choosing this rule of thumb, so, they aren’t questioning its validity. Parent’s tell me they try to convince their kids that the top college thing is overblown, but the kids feel torn. Once learned, our “rules for success” run on autopilot and boot up lightening fast; we don’t think, we just do what feels right. And then we look for evidence to prove our hunches. I know lots of kids who chose a college by jaunting across a campus quad. Kids tell their parents they suddenly feel “certain” they found their dream school in an afternoon visit; “I have to go to Harvard, or I’ll be doomed.” Kids rely on quick impressions to confirm their rules of thumb, they don’t realize they’re being hoodwinked by their emotional system into a false sense of certainty.

Our decision autopilot is mainly useful in situations where we have lots of experience, like when you drive your car home on a familiar road. But when you drive on a new, unfamiliar road your autopilot doesn’t work, you don’t have an internal map to boot up.

To avoid driving your car into a ditch you have to slow down and experientially learn the new road.

Young people are making career decisions in completely unfamiliar territory. Confused and lacking information about their strengths and natural talent fit with career paths, their default autopilot decision grabs the wheel. The problem is, their autopilot can only boot up short cuts to a familiar answer. Teens easily pick up clues from their tribe that certain careers are more prestigious. For instance, law is a career path that smart people do to succeed in life, and even though they don’t actually know anything substantial about what lawyers actually do, they “conjure” up a story that it’s sexier and more creative than it really is (like the idiotic fantasy portrayed in this stock photo). 

Law career daydream

From high school to college to career, young people are flying blind at high speed down an unfamiliar road, but they are not slowing down for the dangerous curves. The consequences are not obvious until later, and are often suffered in quiet for decades.

Not long ago, about half of all Ivy league college grads absolutely “knew” that a career on Wall Street was the way to go. Once the market crashed and all the jobs dried up, many admitted that they aren’t really cut out for finance; it seemed like a good idea, but they didn’t know why. Some people decide to start over and begin building a new, more well-suited career from scratch but most young people get stuck in the wrong career and stay well into their 40s and 50s (see Gallup surveys on workplace engagement). A significant career change is not an easy fix, especially if you don’t know what you really want.

As young professionals approach thirty-something they are somewhat wiser to the world. They landed in the future they thought they wanted and the reality is not lining up with the story dreamt up by their teenage self. This is not all bad, it’s just how we learn. Our emotional career decision circuits are registering “error” alerts, “How did I get this so wrong?” As our lawyer reflected back on her initial career choice, she remembers taking a mental short cut by trusting social cues that pursuing law was a rock solid bet. She recalls,

“My younger self naively thought that “success” was making at least $100K/year—it meant getting a good paying job in a respectable career with high social status. I had done well in school and so I felt that I owed it to myself and to others around me to pursue a career that was well regarded. I proved to myself that I can do that, but it has come at a heavy cost. What I found was an albatross around my neck.”

How is it that we are winging our career choices, yet we feel confident that we’re making good decisions?

Continued in part 3 . . .

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